Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How to See the Elephant - Part IV

Seeking her father, Thetis slips past the guard and enters the camp.

I went swiftly through an area of darkened tents. I was leery of everyone I saw, pausing and waiting and moving on only when I thought there was no-one about. I still had the gun but I knew it would make no difference now. I walked through the labyrinth of tents and stumbled down a hill into a creek and up out of it again, falling over someone’s dinner mess and scattering metal utensils in the dark. And the whole time words, terrible words, from a part of the Bible I had read in secret and never understood: We have a little sister and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for? If she be a wall, we will build upon her a palace of silver, and if she be a door, we will enclose her… I am a wall, and my breasts like towers, then it was that I found favor in his eyes… My face was wet, and I had not even known I was crying. And then I came out on a road again, and there was a horrible smell and I thought I must be near the latrines, but there was something else in the smell: not just latrines but a rotten smell, like the dead fish in the river, and something acrid and chemical. If there was a hospital in the camp, this was it. I saw a large tent, a marquee-like structure, with flaps pulled back, and a lantern at the door. I moved forward until I could peer inside. Two women sat around a packing crate with an oil lamp on it. One was reading aloud; the other, listening, held a handkerchief to her nose. As I watched, the one reading paused and passed the book to her companion. She took her handkerchief away and began reading, while the first lady sank back in her chair and applied her own handkerchief to her nose gratefully. On the other side of the tent was a group of three or four men. I could not see well enough to tell what they were doing, but they seemed ambulatory. I saw a pair of crutches leaning against a makeshift wall of packing crates.
I hesitated a moment before I went in. I licked my palm like a cat and smoothed my hair. I shook my skirts out and brushed at my clothes. I dried my face completely. The hospital smell made me think of the last days at home, of the filth of the sheets and the desperation with which we washed and even burned them (our second-best set, but by that time no-one cared), and of my mother, who had never paused in any activity, never asked for any kind of mercy or reprieve, vanquished, bone-thin, her face blue, barely able to turn over in bed.
I stepped forward steadily, crunching over gravel and dried grass. I don’t remember what I said to the two ladies. I may have tried to walk past them entirely. I remember being held by the arms. But it did not matter, because one of the men stood up and even with his hair so much longer and his beard so much grayer, even with the crutch, I knew who it was, though my brain did not want to recognize him. But I did not cry. I let him put his arms around me and pat my back and I leaned my head against his chest and I heard him ask, Where did you come from? and How? and say, My God, Thetis! I let everybody talk, and said nothing. There was not point in thinking about any of it. It was all over and done with.
And though they made me sit down and brought me soup and found me a place to sleep, I thanked no one, and when my father tried to look me in the eye I turned my head away.

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